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Chanukah guide for the perplexed, 2018

Yoram Ettinger

Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger, “Second Thought: US-Israel Initiative”
Based on ancient Jewish sages,
More on Chanukah and Jewish other holidays:

1. The miracle of Chanukah. According to ancient Jewish sages, Chanukah highlights a critical, non-conventional interpretation of the term “miracle,” which is a derivative of – and not superior to – reality.   Thus, the Hebrew translation of “miracle” – Ness נס – is the root of the Hebrew translation of “(life) experience” – נסיון.

Accordingly, that which is conventionally perceived to be a super-natural outcome/miracle, attests to the unique capability of genuine leaders to overcome awesome odds, challenges, threats and adversities by leveraging personal, national and global experience, in addition to their outstanding capability to assess and impact future developments. Such capabilities shaped the victories of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Emperor in the 2nd century BCE, the US Founding Fathers over the British Empire in 1776 and the 650,000 Jews over the coalition of invading Arab armies in 1948.

2. The Chanukah-David Ben Gurion connection. Such a unique capability – to realistically and strategically assess past experience and future trends – was demonstrated by a modern day Maccabee, David Ben Gurion, the 1948 Founding Father and the first Prime Minister of Israel, who stated (Uniqueness and Destiny, pp 20-22, David Ben Gurion, IDF Publishing, 1953, Hebrew): “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression…. The meager Jewish people did not assimilate, as did many peoples.  The Jewish people prevailed, won, sustained and enhanced their independence and unique civilization…. The Hasmoneans overcame one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history, due to the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment….”

3. Chanukah’s historical context according to the Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus and The War of the Jews by Joseph Ben Mattityahu (Josephus Plavius):

In 175 BCE, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies of Syria (1/3 of the disintegrated Greek Empire) attempted to exterminate Judaism and forcibly convert Jews to Hellenism.  He suspected that the Jews were allies of Egypt, his chief rival. In 169 BCE, upon returning to Syria from a war against Egypt, he devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews, forbade the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Temple.

The Jewish rebellion in 167 BCE featured the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family: Mattityahu, a priest from Modi’in, and his five sons: Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Elazar. The heroic, creative battle tactics of the Maccabees, were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers. The battles of the Maccabees inspired the future Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire: from the battle against Pompey in 63 BCE, through the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE.

4. The Maccabees. The name Maccabee (מכבי or מקבי) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for power hammer – Makevet (מקבת). It is also a derivative of the Hebrew verb Cabeh (כבה), to extinguish (fire and/or one’s enemies). Maccabee, מכבי, is also the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among gods, O Jehovah” מי כמוך באלים יי)). In Latin, the C is sometimes pronounced like a TZ, and Maccabee could be the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Matzbee, a commander-in-chief.

The Maccabees, in particular, and Chanukah, in general, have become a role model for liberty-pursuing peoples, emphasizing faith in God, morality/light, the spiritual (Bible), the physical (weapon), the centrality of roots/history, heroism on the battlefield and optimism.  The first day of Chanukah is celebrated when daylight hours are balanced with darkness, ushering in optimism – brighter days/future.

5. Chanukah and education. ( חנוכהin Hebrew) celebrates the initiation/inauguration (חנוכ) of the reconstructed Temple. Chanukah (חנוכה) is education-oriented (חנוכ). A key feature of Chanukah is the education/mentoring of the family and community, recognizing education as the foundation of human behavior.

According to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah the Maccabee instituted an 8-day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev in 165 BCE (just like King Solomon’s 8-day celebration of the inauguration of the First Temple), in order to commemorate Jewish history, in general, and the inauguration and deliverance of the holy altar and the Temple, in particular. The Hebrew word, Chanukah, חנוכה, consists of two words, Chanu-Kah ( חנו-כהin Hebrew) which means “they camped/rested” (חנו) on the 25th day (כה equals 25 in Hebrew) of the Jewish month of Kislev.

6. The uplifting Chanukah Menorah (a 9-branched-candelabra) commemorates the legacy of the Maccabees, highlighting the prerequisites of spiritual and physical liberty, in defiance of formidable odds: value-driven faith, tenacious optimism, patriotism, attachment to roots, adherence to long-term values and interests over political-correctness and short-term convenience.

The Biblical commandment to light candles employs the verb “to elevate the candles” (Numbers, 8:1-3), since candles represent the soul, aiming to elevate human morality, while the candelabra represents the unity of the family and the people.

The Chanukah candles are lit, for 8 days (the shape of 8 represents eternity as is the Jewish covenant with God), during the darkest time of the year, when the moon is hardly noticed, and human mood tends to grow grimmer. The Chanukah festival of lights symbolizes the victory of optimism over depression.

7. The Land of Israel connection:
Chanukah is the longest Jewish holiday – the only Jewish holiday (other than Israel’s Independence Day) that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost (the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).

The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria (especially the Land of Benjamin) were the platform of critical Maccabees’ military battles: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel), Beth El (Judah’s first headquarters), Beth Horon (Judah’s victory over Seron), Hadashah (Judah’s victory over Nicanor), Beth Zur (Judah’s victory over Lysias), Ma’aleh Levona (Judah’s victory over Apolonius), Adora’yim (a Maccabean fortress), Elazar (named after Mattityahu’s youngest son), Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed), Te’qoah, Mikhmash and Gophnah (bases of Shimon and Yonatan), the Judean Desert, etc.

When ordered by Emperor Antiochus (Book of Maccabees A: 15:33) to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer and Akron, Shimon the Maccabee responded: “We have not occupied a foreign land; we have not ruled a foreign land; we have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.” Shimon’s statement is as relevant in 2018 as it was in ancient times.

8. The US-Chanukah connection is documented in

More information on Chanukah and other Jewish holidays:


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